What matters most - key network constraints, existing Melbourne rail network (source: PTV)

Yesterday’s release of Public Transport Victoria’s (PTV) Network Development Plan for Melbourne’s rail system is more evidence of how frustrating life must’ve been like under former Premier, Ted Baillieu. The report joins a growing list of others released since Denis Napthine took over the top job.

This is by far the most important one. I’ve only had time for a quick look at the overview documents last night so these are my initial reactions, which are necessarily high-level.

I’ll look more closely at the longer supporting documents shortly. The devil is often in the detail with these sorts of plans so it’s possible I might revise my view on some aspects.

According to the Plan, the forecast task for rail in Melbourne is daunting. Average weekday boardings on metropolitan rail are projected to grow by around 4% per annum and more than double between 2011 and 2031.

The key objectives of the Plan are to expand capacity, improve coordination with buses and trams, and extend the network to new areas. How it proposes to address these objectives is organised in four stages (the time frames appear to be based on commencement, not completion):

Stage 1 – within 4 years. The pitch here is “overcoming constraints” that limit improvements to system capacity and performance. Most of these actions are already underway e.g. segregating country and metro trains, purchasing additional rolling stock.

Stage 2 – within 10 years. The star attraction is “commencing the introduction of a metro-style system”. The key initiative is the 13 km Melbourne Metro tunnel under the CBD.

It also envisages essential but more mundane initiatives, including upgrading the capacity of the Dandenong corridor, purchase of 30 trains, and installation of high capacity signalling on a number of lines.

Stage 3 – within 15 years. This involves “extending the network” and is the one the media and interest groups are most interested in. The key initiatives are a rail line to the airport and new lines to suburban Rowville and Doncaster.

It also involves purchase of more trains, a new line (tunnel) connecting Clifton Hill to Flagstaff, electrification to Melton, and further conversion to high capacity signalling.

Stage 4 – within 20 years. This stage is characterised as “preparing for future growth”. The headline initiative is to reconfigure the City Loop to provide seven separate, independently operated “metro” lines through the Melbourne CBD.

It’s also proposed a new line would be constructed from the city to the growth area at inner city Fishermans Bend, as well as extensions to outer suburban Mernda and Wyndham Vale.

A number of lines would be duplicated and quadruplicated and the line to Geelong electrified.

The main public reaction to the Plan seems to be disappointment that new rail lines to the airport, Doncaster and Rowville are at least 15 years away, possibly more.

The way The Age framed its report reflects that narrative: Major rail projects expected in 20 years. The Financial Review says there are Questions over Melbourne’s $30 billion rail plan, noting it “lacks crucial detail on implementation and funding.”

I think the first thing to do is to congratulate Public Transport Victoria (PTV) on producing a long-term plan for Melbourne’s rail system and making it available publicly. Whatever its virtues or failings might be, as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a public plan like this for many decades.

It’s up to the government what it does with it. Although the CEO of PTV apparently mentioned a possible cost of $30 billion (not clear what stages it applies to, though), the Plan is driven by technical considerations, not funding availability.

From what I’ve read so far, there’s a lot in this Plan that makes good sense.

The centrepiece – and its greatest virtue – is the vision of a metro-style rail system. What the document sets out is a program to create a high-capacity, high-frequency “turn-up-and-go” rail network, with lines operating independently and coordinated with bus and tram feeder services.

Putting the short-term focus on improving the capacity and performance of the existing system ahead of glamorous network expansions also makes sense. That involves various less visible initiatives like corridor upgrades and improved signalling, as well as building the costly Melbourne Metro.

It’s also right to put off the network expansions to the medium term and to probably what, in effect, is the political never-never. Both the Rowville and Doncaster lines are unjustifiable (for reasons I’ve explained before) and shouldn’t be in there in that time frame, but I acknowledge they’re so high-profile they can’t be ignored.

There is however a good case for an airport rail line. It’s not likely to be needed until circa 2030 so it sits comfortably in the proposed timetable. Unlike Doncaster and Rowville, it has a compelling logic that’s unlikely to be ignored when conditions demand it be built.

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) is critical of the Plan, arguing that prioritising the expensive Melbourne Metro tunnel crowds out new rail lines. It says upgrading signalling first would increase capacity at vastly lower cost and release funding to enable the airport, Rowville and Doncaster lines to be built sooner rather than later.

As I read it, PTV’s Plan is a technical response to forecast patronage growth. It doesn’t have regard to the availability of funding but rather prioritises improvements (like upgraded signalling) according to when they’re justified on operational grounds.

The argument for bringing forward these rail lines is essentially political. If they’re not needed at this time the PTUA’s argument is largely beside the point.

Nevertheless, if it isn’t addressed in the technical report, PTV would be wise to explain better why the program of upgraded signalling isn’t proposed for faster implementation.

I’d also like to see PTV’s argument for extending rail to Mernda as late as Stage 4. It’s a major growth area and warrants a good connection to the city centre. Consideration would still need to be given to other options, though, like the former government’s proposed Mernda busway.

I’m surprised the Plan doesn’t propose any new cross-city rail lines outside the inner city. That might be because it’s thought that function would more sensibly be delivered by buses and trams (Network Plans for both these modes are due to be completed this year).

The authors of the forthcoming metropolitan planning strategy should take a good look at this report. They should be asking themselves if this centre-focused public transport Plan is consistent with their commitment to a “polycentric city”.

One very interesting matter of detail that caught my eye was mention of the proposed rail line to Avalon Airport.  The Government promised construction would commence in this term, but PTV seems to think the government’s softened its position:

While a rail link to Avalon Airport is not part of the metropolitan network at this time, and not considered as part of this plan, the Victorian Government is committed to protecting a reservation and is currently undertaking planning and design for construction of a rail link to commence within the next five years.

That’s one promise the Napthine government ought not to be held to account for breaking. Rather, the new Premier ought to be congratulated if he abandons it.

It’s disappointing that so much of the debate about rail is framed in terms of expansion of the network. These sorts of initiatives are usually very expensive and offer marginal benefits to the system as a whole.

For example, the proposed Rowville line would increase public transport’s share of all metropolitan trips in 2046 from 12.6% to 12.7%. More than half its patronage would come from existing rail lines and it would only eliminate a microscopic 15,000 car trips per day.

For an outlay of at least $2 billion, that’s an extraordinarily modest pay-off. There are much more productive ways funding on that scale could be applied.

Given the high level of anticipated patronage growth, improving the performance, capacity and connectivity of the existing metropolitan rail network – which already consists of 830 km of track and 217 stations – should be the top priority.

As noted, I’ll revisit this topic shortly when I’ve had time to look at the detailed reports. I’m hoping they’ll provide explanation and justification, not just state what PTV thinks should be done.

One of the things I’ll be particularly interested in understanding better is the logic underpinning the patronage projections, especially the high rate of employment growth assumed in the CBD.